Rick Newman, founder of Catch a Rising Star comedy club, dies at 81

Rick Newman, the founder of Catch a Rising Star comedy club in New York City where a generation of stand-up comics — Billy Crystal, Richard Lewis, Jerry Seinfeld, Robin Williams, Richard Belzer and countless others — honed their craft in the 1970s, died Feb. 20 at his home in Los Angeles. He was 81.

The cause was pancreatic cancer, said his wife Krysi Newman, who like Crystal and Lewis noted with bewilderment and a twinge of wistfulness for a bygone era that Mr. Newman died the day after Belzer, the club’s longtime emcee.

“What really bound us all together back in those days was this place we felt safe in, where the common goal was to just get laughs. And for me, there was no better place to do that than in New York at Catch,” Crystal said in a phone interview. “It was a gymnasium where you worked out your stuff.”

Located on First Avenue between 77th and 78th streets on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, Mr. Newman’s club supercharged “the stand-up comedy explosion of the 1970s,” Richard Zoglin wrote in “Comedy at the Edge,” and at its height rivaled Studio 54 as a “celebrity-studded icon of the drugs-and-disco decade.”

Mr. Newman opened the club in late 1972, nine years after the Improv debuted on Manhattan’s West Side in Hell’s Kitchen. He positioned Catch both in name and vibe as a place for up-and-comers to sharpen their material in a more welcoming place than his crosstown rival, a more cutthroat environment that catered to more established industry types.

“The Improv was more rough-and-tumble, more gritty, while Catch a Rising Star was a more homey kind of hangout,” Lewis said, recalling how patrons sat at tables with red-and-white checkered tablecloths. “And that’s because of Rick. He was like the loving brother we all wanted. He made you feel like you were already a star when you worked there, like anything was possible.”

In 1976, an aspiring comic named Jerry Seinfeld chose Catch for his first try at stand-up. His friend Mike Costanza drove him there. He bombed. “I got up and all I could remember were the subjects that I wanted to talk about,” Seinfeld recalled later. “So I just stood there and went, ‘The beach … cars …’ I did about three minutes and I got off. And the sad thing is I’m not embellishing the story to make it funny.”

When Mr. Newman, who had previously run a downtown bar, took over the saloon that eventually became Catch a Rising Star, he wasn’t planning a comedy club.

“His first notion was a western-themed antiques emporium and restaurant, where patrons could buy antiques while ordering their strip steaks,” Zoglin wrote in his history of stand-up comedy. “Then he got a better idea: a club that would showcase new talent, both singers and comedians.”

The club’s name was a twist on the Perry Como song “Catch a Falling Star.” At first, Mr. Newman also booked musicians, including up-and-coming rocker Pat Benatar. Business struggled to catch on. Crystal recalled how Mr. Newman would sometimes slip him gas money as payment. Cab fare and hamburgers were also currency.

Then, one Saturday night in 1973, David Brenner showed up.

“At that point, David had been on ‘The Tonight Show’ many times and was very respected,” Mr. Newman told Parade. “He wasn’t your father’s comedian. He was your comedian. And he was hot.”

Brenner sat down at a table and Mr. Newman wandered over to introduce himself.

“How about getting up?” he said.

“No, not yet,” Brenner said. “Let me watch.”

So Brenner watched. An hour and a half went by. Then he called Mr. Newman over.

“I’ll get up,” he said “I’ll do some material.”

The audience was gobsmacked. More importantly, Brenner kept coming back to perform, likening the club to a typewriter.

“I write on the stage,” Brenner told the New York Times. “I just get up with some premises, start to talk, take questions from the audience, and some nights, if I’m really cooking I’ll get 15 minutes of new material. You can’t practice on the ‘Tonight Show’ or in Vegas. Catch is a place where you can be bad, and that’s how you get to be good.”

Brenner’s appearances inspired other comics to show up, including Andy Kaufman, who used Catch a Rising Star to try out the barely-speaks-English “Foreign Man” character he later played as the mechanic Latka on the sitcom “Taxi.”

“I really didn’t know if he was putting me on,” Mr. Newman told Parade. “He did Foreign Man until the audiences were booing and walking out. But then suddenly he broke into his incredible Elvis imitation and caught us so completely by surprise that we ended up crying, we were laughing so hard.”

The list of other comics who appeared on Catch’s stage is longer than a punchline: Rodney Dangerfield, Freddie Prinze, Robert Klein, Chris Rock, Eddie Murphy, Larry David, Elayne Boosler, Jay Leno, Joy Behar, Ray Romano and Adam Sandler.

Irving Newman was born in the Bronx on Feb. 21, 1941, the youngest of four children. His father made ties in the garment district. His mother was a homemaker. Irving didn’t like his first name, so around age 6 he told people to call him Rick. The name stuck.

Mr. Newman excelled in drawing and planned to study graphic arts, but after graduating high school he started working in bars, managing several before he opened Catch a Rising Star.

Mr. Newman’s greatest asset as the impresario of Catch a Rising Star was his personality. Budd Friedman, the founder of the Improv, could be gruff and intimidating, especially to newcomers. Mr. Newman could have been the host of “The Love Boat,” Lewis once said.

“The great thing about Catch a Rising Star was that the vibe was so lighthearted and so warm and filled with so much fun and joy,” Lewis said. “It was absolutely one of the one of the great venues in my career.”

Mr. Newman brought on Richard Fields as a partner in 1982, but they clashed, and Fields became the sole owner in 1986, trying to expand around the country. The original Catch location closed in 1993. Mr. Newman went on to produce other comedy ventures through the years, though none as big as Catch a Rising Star.

Survivors include his wife, the former Krysi Mulvihill, whom he married in 2003, and two children from a previous marriage to Tammy Newman.

Mr. Newman’s death, coming so close to Belzer’s, left Crystal thinking back to his early days at Catch, how he’d listen to a cassette tape recording of his set while driving home to his wife and their baby. Crystal was a substitute teacher then. He was also at a crossroads.

“Either I’m going to do this, this comedy that I always thought I could do,” Crystal said, “or I’m taking the teaching job I was just offered.”

He was grateful for the timing and how he seized it.

“If Rick wasn’t as welcoming, and if [Belzer] wasn’t as encouraging, I might be just grateful I had tenure as a teacher and that I still had my health benefits,” Crystal said, laughing.

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